Louis Armstrong International Airport saw the biggest increase in passenger volume of any major airport in the United States last year, according to industry figures released Monday — a statistic that local officials took as a promising sign for the region’s economy.
About 9.2 million passengers came through the airport in 2013, up 7.1 percent from 2012. Three other major cities — Houston and Austin, Texas, and San Jose, Calif. — came close to matching New Orleans with about 6 percent growth, according to rankings compiled by Airline Weekly magazine using data from the Airports Council International.
The new ranking comes just a few days after Spirit Airlines announced it would add nonstop flights from New Orleans to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Houston. It also comes with the city poised to begin work on a major airport expansion that officials hope will lower costs for the airlines and lure more flights, particularly new international routes.
Iftikhar Ahmad, who has served as aviation director in New Orleans since 2010, credited his cost-cutting efforts at the airport, as well as the city’s overall growth in the past few years, with lifting the number of passengers.
"Airports cannot create demand. It’s the community that creates demand,” Ahmad said. "And the New Orleans region is going through a major renaissance. We have twice the number of restaurants we used to have pre-Katrina. The hotel industry is booming. The conventions are coming back. So the outlook is really good.”
Looking ahead, Ahmad sounded a slightly more cautious note. He said first-quarter passenger numbers show growth of about 4.1 percent compared with the same three months of 2013, with March up about 8.3 percent. He would not predict whether growth in New Orleans might again top the list of U.S. cities in 2014.
In the long term, New Orleans is counting on a new passenger terminal to help bring in more flights.
The $650 million project is slated to be completed in 2018 for the city’s tricentennial. Officials expect the new building will be cheaper to operate than the existing structure, and the savings can be passed along to the airlines. At the same time, more retail space should bring in more revenue, and linked terminals should allow for more connecting flights.
For now, New Orleans officials continue to pitch the airlines on adding new routes based on passenger growth over the past few years and steps the airport has already taken to bring down costs. Ahmad described a kind of "speed dating” routine at conferences he attends around the country: 15-minute opportunities to meet with various airlines and try to sell them on the logic of adding new flights to and from the city.
One important way to make that logic work is to bring down how much the airport has to charge airlines for each passenger. In 2013, that figure stood at $8.41 at Louis Armstrong International, down from $10.20 in 2009. Ahmad credits that drop with spurring the new Spirit Airlines flights to Florida and Texas. Alaska Airlines also has announced it will start a new nonstop flight between New Orleans and Seattle this year.
But the big push now is for more international flights. Right now, Louis Armstrong has international routes only to Cancun, Mexico, Montego Bay, Jamaica and Toronto, Canada. Ahmad said he is pushing for a direct flight to London, but he wouldn’t predict whether there will be any more announcements this year.
"That is hard to predict,” he said. "But we certainly will not back down. We have no plans to back away from it. We want the international tourists.”